I was working in Calcutta and remitting money to my village in Agra. In Calcutta I was a watchman earning 4/- per week. I had been there for a long time when an arkati came and told me I could get a job working in the canefields, but all I had to do would be to walk around with a stick. And when I registered I was told to give my age as twenty years. I was attracted because I was offered a better wage, of 12 annas per day. I stayed two or three weeks at the depot; it was all eating, singing and making merry.
Devi Singh's story
The arkati was a Muslim. We were told Fiji was 700 miles away, and an island. Had I known the real distance I would not have come, it was too far from home.
The authorities did not wish to recruit Brahmins so they had to change their name in order to migrate as labourers. Though I was of the kshatriya caste, I gave it all up, it no longer matters, though I feel remorse for abandoning this aspect of my religion. One of the reasons for not bringing brahmins here was that they might become mendicants.
The journey by ship was quite satisfactory, we were adequately fed. I did not eat meat in India, but had to do so on board ship, otherwise I would have had nothing but dry roti to eat.
When I got here I did write home but there was no response. I knew how to read and write, I had been to school as far as Class 8. In my early days here, when Fijians were given roti or rice, they took a sniff and then threw it away.
Equally we did not appreciate their food, such as cassava or breadfruit. This was in the beginning, of course, now the situation has changed. Fijians were generally very friendly. There was, however, an occasion when we came into conflict with them during my girmit in Tavua. They were hitting some of the old Indian hands. So we, the newcomers, took the stick out of our hoes and struck some of the Fijians and chased them away. In pursuing them we got as far as their village.
During indenture sardars used to write down in some cases incomplete tasks and these labourers would get only six pence for their efforts. We used to get 5/6 per week and the sardars 7/-. They did not take bribes or demand money, they used to resort to entering uncompleted tasks after our names. One of our sardars was a chamar by caste, the other was a brahmin, the latter was better. He used to stop the European overseer from interfering with the labourers.
Europeans did beat up Indians but there were cases where Indians retaliated in like measure. There was an interesting episode in Lautoka over a woman. A white man was keeping an Indian woman and the Indian men did not like his visiting her. One of the men disguised himself as the woman concerned and went out for the rendezvous. The European thought his woman had come and went to meet her. Thereupon four or five Indians descended upon him and beat him to death. These men were later hanged. I heard of this story; I was in Tavua and it took place in Lautoka. There were many Europeans like this one; I did not come across any good Europeans. They were all united. And the Indian sardars sided with them.
Here in Fiji we were taken into the field by 5 am when it was still dark and left there to wait in order to commence on time. In India, on the other hand, we did not begin till 7 a.m. During the cane cutting season, after loading the cane, sometimes we did not finish till midnight but we had to start again at 5 a.m. The doctor where I was very good, he did not necessarily side with Europeans. There were also cases of pretended illness in order to get rest, and these were not always detected.
Muslims fasted and said their prayers during girmit. Their girmiton these occasions became very rigorous. We helped them where we could.
By the end of girmit I had saved about fifty pounds. I did so because I was single but there were also married couples who saved the wife’s earnings. I saved because while in girmit. I grew some corn on land leased from a European. I used to work on it on Sundays and the Company used to buy the corn to feed its horses. I used to get 10/- per bag. Also I received assistance from others: with ploughing, for instance, those already ‘free’ came to my aid; I also borrowed implements from them.
Some Indians became rich by other means. Three or four men would come together and create kaka or chacha relationships.
They would all work together with one woman. As one became older he would be pushed out, perhaps into a destitute home, the younger and the more powerful would then usurp his money and position.
The money that I saved during indenture I deposited. And I grew vegetables for my own consumption.
During court cases we had Indian babus (clerks) but they used to side with the Europeans. They also received bribes.